We’ve all heard the joke of the traveller asking a local how to reach a certain town and being told ‘Well now, you can’t get there from here’. We laugh, but when it comes to infrastructure sustainability, our starting point also determines where we can arrive.
At a time when I was an advisor to the Minister of Construction, a new dam was proposed. I looked into the proposal. It did not permit extension of the growing area, nor, because of the weather conditions, did it permit extension of the growing time. At best it would provide a fall back for famers in case of drought. However the benefits of that for the few farmers involved came nowhere close to covering the costs involved. No matter which way I looked at it, on economic, social or environmental grounds I could not make it stack up. What really puzzled me was that the major advocate for the dam was no idiot. He was, in fact, a Rhodes Scholar. I said it was a money losing proposition – and he agreed with me!
“Then why on earth do it?” I exploded in frustration.
“Well”, he said, “the money’s going to be spent on something, so it might as well be here!”
Today we tend to start from the assumption that we have to build something which we can see by the fact that governments determine their capital budgets separately from their recurrent budgets. And we often hear anxiety around the notion that ‘we have to keep up the pipeline of construction projects’.
Why? Why is it important to keep UP the capital spend, but keep DOWN the recurrent spend? Is it even possible?
If we want sustainability, maybe we need to look at where we are starting from.